Xhosa Memetic Plague

This, in a weird way, could also potentially explain the greatly increased numbers of extremist opinions that are seemingly so widespread.

The following excerpt is from Where is My Flying Car:

The Xhosa are a southeast African tribe whose economy and culture were traditionally based on cattle-herding. In the spring of 1856, Nongqawuse, a 15-year-old girl, heard the voices of her ancestors telling her that the Xhosa had to kill all their cattle and destroy their hoes, pots, and stores of grain. Channeling the ancestors, Nongqawuse explained that once this had been done the very ground would burst forth with plenty, the dead would be resurrected, and the interloping Dutch-German Boers would be driven from their lands. Surprisingly enough, the beliefs found fertile ground among the Xhosa and spread like wildfire, within months receiving the imprimatur of their king.

Many members of the tribe slaughtered their cattle; by the end of 1857, over 400,000 had been killed. The Xhosa also refrained from planting for the 1856-1857 growing season, and as a consequence, there was no harvest. No cattle, no harvest. It is estimated that 40,000 Xhosans starved to death and that about an equal number fled the country in search of food. By the end of 1858, three-quarters of the Xhosa were gone.

It stands as a stark reminder that when social feedback, superstition, hopes and desires, and the suppression of doubt and skepticism in the name of faith line up, the resulting movement can make an entire people believe and do horribly self-destructive things that are completely at odds with common sense.

Easter Island

Excerpted and lightly edited from Scientific Freedom

Polynesians arriving on this remotest of Pacific islands around 900 AD found it hospitable and covered in dense forest. However, drawing on a wide range of archaeological and forensic science, we conclude that the forest finally disappeared by about 1600 AD to provide the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific.

This deforestation came about largely because the islanders needed trees for the construction and transport of an escalating number of huge stone statues that played an essential role in the islanders’ religious and social lives.

Unfortunately, the island’s ecology is totally dependent on trees, and demand for them eventually outstripped Nature’s supply. Without. trees, the islanders could not build long-range canoes, and so deep-sea fish, dolphins, porpoises, and tuna became inaccessible. Loss of trees also led to increased soil erosion and poor crop yields.

It is estimated that by 1774 AD, when Captain Cook visited the island, its once prosperous population had declined by about 70% since its break between 1400 AD and 1600 AD, and relates that Cook described the islanders as “small, lean, timid, and miserable”.

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?

It is likely that one or two dissenting voices would always have been railing about the madness of trying to cover the island with statues. But who would have listened? Statue building was apparently the principal mode of competition among the island’s dozen or so factions. If one faction withdrew from the statue-building race, it would effectively be throwing in the towel. The leadership might have pointed out that the island still had a viable number of trees and a much larger number of saplings. We do not have to worry, therefore, their leaders might have said, the saplings will grow in due course and more than replace the trees we take.

Unfortunately, the island is subject to very strong winds. An exceptionally strong gale could destroy the entire tree cover if it had already been seriously depleted, and the saplings would suddenly be left with no cover and soils reduced by erosion. Tree cover would most likely have come to a catastrophic end, therefore, rather than dwindling away imperceptibly.

Their actions had caused the island’s ecology to become precariously and uncontrollably balanced. Once tree cover had fallen below a certain critical level, the islander’s fate would have been sealed.